I got my very first job when I was 16. It was a summer job working in the Hersheypark amphitheater. If that sounds like a fun job, well, it was, mostly. Except for the heat and the weird uniforms that had to be traded out for washing and except for the times I had to sub in the aquatheater, which was wet and smelled liked dolphins.

After that, I always had a job of some sort–

Sales clerk. Retail was not my thing. I sold sheets and tablecloths in the linen department of a department store. Everyone else who worked there was at least 25 years older than me and knew (cared) a lot more about linens than I did at the age of 18. I worked full time for a year before I went to college.

Administrative assistant (secretary), both at college in various academic departments and during the summer at a local ice manufacturer. While I was quick and good at anticipating needs and tasks before I was asked to address them, I was extremely inept when it came to typing on old carbon copy paper, you know, the kind that came in sets of three with carbon paper in between? I threw away 3 sets of ruined carbon copy paper for every one set completed. I also used a quantity of Whiteout equal to an amount that would likely, completely cover a yard-encompassing, white picket fence, if you wanted to repaint a white fence with Whiteout.

Two paralegal positions. I was good at those! Except for keeping track of billable hours. I always erred on the side of caution fearing that our clients would be overcharged for my work. Obviously, I was not a lawyer.

Followed by freelancing (convenient), proofreading (questionable), and finally library jobs, which have molded my current career path. But since the age of 16, even though I’ve always had a job, I haven’t always been employed. In fact, I was unemployed by choice for 13 years, during which time, ironically, I experienced my toughest, best, most rewarding, most challenging, most fulfilling job ever. I was a stay-at-home mom.

I had both the privilege and luxury of being in a position to make that decision as well as a desire to take the job. At the time, I believed it was not only the best decision for our family (still true), but the only “right” decision (not true). Now I know better. There is almost always more than one “right” way. I would probably even go so far as to say that I felt somewhat superior to employed mothers. In my mind, and in the minds of the other women I knew and spent time with, who were also stay-at-home moms, we had put our children’s needs first unlike those moms who put their own needs first. Yes, exactly. Their own needs like food, and housing, and clothes–for their kids–or a need to have a niche to call their own, which can be equally as compelling.

We were all thinking much the same thing–How can a mom that spends 8 hours or more away from her child 5 days out of the week possibly be as good a mom as I am? Why, those moms aren’t the ones chaperoning field trips or acting as room parents or baking cookies or volunteering in the classroom. Those moms aren’t even home when their children get off the bus at the end of the day. Those moms are at work all day missing the most formative years of their children’s lives.

I’ve been back to work outside the home full time for only the last five years. And now I know three things for sure. First, there are many employed mothers who would give their right arms (and their iPhones if they have them) to be stay-at-home moms but don’t have that option. Two, even mothers that do have that option, but choose to work outside the home for whatever reasons, are juggling more than is humanly possibly while feeling guilty much of the time, thinking of their children all of the time, and loving and knowing their children not one bit less. And three, those moms haven’t missed the most formative years of their children’s lives. They’ve been there all along and especially when it mattered most, and when they weren’t there physically, they were there in spirit. And their children knew that.

Having returned to work full time with “older” children (although my son was only 10 at the time), I can only imagine the logistical difficulties inherent in raising very young children, who cannot be left alone, with two working parents or one, single working parent. There were so many occasions, events, circumstances that I never had to worry about and I took that for granted. I never had to worry if a child was sick and couldn’t go to school. Early dismissal? No problem! I never had to worry about how many personal/vacation/sick hours I had left and how to best use them to accommodate plays or athletic events or holiday parties. Summer? Bring it on! Doctors appointments, dentist appointments, all appointments could be scheduled without fear of conflict of interest. And I don’t mean to exclude dads from this equation–not for a second–but right now, I’m focusing on moms because that’s what I know best.

It was arrogant and ignorant of me to think that I was a better mom because I had more time to devote to the job. Especially now that I am one of those moms and I know firsthand about the difficult balance and the often anguished feelings of wishing to be in a place with my child (at whatever age that child may be) when I can’t be there. And it is equally arrogant and ignorant of employed mothers to assume that stay-at-home moms have it easy, because they don’t. While they do have an easier time managing schedules, there is a whole other set of challenges that threatens to derail you when your job surrounds you 24/7. It’s a tough job; it is a job that is often misunderstood and undervalued by society. It is a job that I took very seriously–one that I was proud of. And also one that I loved and value, still, above all others.

We all know stay-at-home moms that schedule lunch dates and tennis matches and manicures and pedicures while their kids are in school all day. I wasn’t one of those. And few of the stay-at-home moms that I know were. Conversely, we all know employed moms that would rather be at work than spend time with their kids. Both extremes exist, but the far greater truth lies in between where there are benefits and drawbacks to both situations.

I hope the mommy wars are less virulent now than they were when my kids were younger. Hopefully, we all understand that judging someone else’s life choices or circumstances doesn’t elevate our own status. I know that I have come to realize that love and devotion is reflected in the relationship we have with our children rather than the logistics of any given day. I’m not saying quantity of time spent isn’t important–it is. However, when you make the most of the time you do have, you can make up for having less of it.

So for me, yes, being a stay-at-home mom for 13 years was my toughest, best, most rewarding, most challenging, and most fulfilling job. But I’d say that being a mom for 22 years–stay-at-home or not–has been the best part of my life. And being a mom is not so much a job as a labor of love–a cliché, yes, but a true one. I love the memories of those years I spent at home. Not that they were all sweetness and light (another cliche). They weren’t. But I can’t imagine that if I had done it differently I would have a different a relationship with my kids. Because I couldn’t possibly love them any differently no matter what the circumstances. And isn’t that what counts most?

One of the hardest things about being a stay-at-home mom? Re-entering the work force after a 13-year absence and having to answer to a supervisor rather than giving the orders. I hated the idea of having a boss–still do! I was the boss of me and three little people for over a decade. Although, in all honesty, during those years at home, I’m not really sure who was in charge.

There was the smell of Hershey chocolate in the air when we baked cookies (even the smell of marine life when we cleaned the fish tank); there were certainly plenty of sheets, towels, and tablecloths to fold (although truth be told, I didn’t fold them); there were tasks aplenty (although no carbon paper, thankfully); and there were enough books to fill a library–we still have them. I can’t part with even one picture book. There was a great sense of purpose combined with an underlying feeling of weariness, but the sense of purpose made the weariness bearable.

If you’re a mom who loves her kids and you’re doing the best by them that you can, then you are doing the right thing, whatever that thing is. And don’t let anyone tell you differently. Rejoice, enjoy, and believe. You are a big part of what will make your children who they choose to become. As long as you spend whatever time you have putting them above all else, well, you will have conquered the toughest, best job of all–motherhood. And that is no small thing.